He wouldn’t have been able to do any of it if not for another role in which he’s excelled: patient.
From the first indication of a heart problem -– a middle-of-the-night tingling sensation in the last two fingers on his left hand when he was 37 –- Cheney has acted promptly whenever he noticed that his body might be failing him.
Living by the mantra, “When in doubt, check it out,” he’s overcome five heart attacks and a sudden cardiac arrest. He’s been through a litany of cardiac procedures, the most recent -– and most challenging –- being 20 months with an external device pumping his heart until he received a transplant.
“Virtually everything that could happen to a heart patient had happened to me,” Cheney said.
Cheney detailed his medical journey Monday in a series of interviews at Scientific Sessions, including a panel discussion and a private chat with American Heart Association President Elliott Antman. Cheney was accompanied throughout by his cardiologist, Dr. Jonathan Reiner.
Cheney’s high-profile career has given him access to high-quality care, and he’s had extraordinarily good timing; many of the greatest medical advancements over the last 40 years arrived just when he needed them. Yet the big takeaway from hearing his tale is how ordinary it is. The real secret to his longevity turns out to be that he followed his mantra, as well as some basic advice every heart patient gets:
Don’t smoke. Cheney became a regular smoker after high school but kicked his habit the day the tingling sensation sent him to the hospital with his first heart attack.
Find doctors you trust and stick with them. He picked a cardiologist in 1984, following his second heart attack. Reiner was that doctor’s protégé, so he’s been with the same team for 30 years. He’s also used the same team of surgeons for many years, with Dr. Alan Speier (who also was part of Monday’s panel discussion) implanting Cheney’s left ventricular assist device (LVAD) and doing his transplant.
Let doctors make suggestions, but ask questions and make informed decisions together. Heart disease isn’t something you can control. How you respond to it is, and a powerful personality like Cheney wants to feel in control: “If you’ve got somebody who doesn’t want to answer questions, then you’ve probably got the wrong doc. Jon Reiner’s been very open, very knowledgeable, but very good at presenting me with the relevant facts. I want to know why we’re going to do what we’re going to do, or what we’re thinking about doing.”
“He’s an unusual example of almost everything we do every day,” Reiner said. “The fact that he’s incredibly compliant –- I don’t think that’s unique, but it is very, very admirable. It certainly has impacted his success. … What I hope (other) patients get from the Vice President’s experience is that you can have heart disease and succeed in life.”
His maternal grandfather -– a beloved, colorful character who had taught Cheney and his brother how to fish, and had rescued a mongrel that became the family’s pet dog -– already had overcome two heart attacks. Granddad had another while visiting Cheney’s family at their home in Casper, Wyoming, with young Dick the only person around at the time. He fetched his parents, who called for an ambulance, then he flagged down the paramedics when they arrived.
“I will always remember as they carried him out on the stretcher holding the screen door to get him out,” Cheney said. “That was the last time I saw him alive. He died within the hour.”
That was 1955. Fast forward to June 1978. Cheney was staying at a friend’s house during his first campaign for Congress when he awoke with the strange tingling sensation. He asked his hosts to take him to the hospital and passed out when he arrived.
Upon Cheney’s recovery, a doctor said he was healthy enough to continue his campaign, adding, “Hard work never killed anybody.” Cheney would cling to that notion for decades, no matter how stressful his jobs were.
Cheney also figured his heart problem was a one-time thing, that by quitting smoking he’d live happily ever after. That false sense of security lasted six years. His next heart attack came four years later prompting a quadruple bypass and a regiment of cholesterol-lowering drugs. A few months later, he was skiing, proving he was healthy enough to become Secretary of Defense under President George Bush.
When George W. Bush asked Cheney to be his running mate in 2000, Cheney responded that health was his priority -– that if he felt anything during a vice presidential debate, he’d immediately go to a hospital. Indeed, during his tenure, Cheney had a small heart attack and needed an angioplasty and a stent. He received a defibrillator, and later needed another operation to replace the batteries.
“As we were leaving the office, in January 2009, the president got the White House medical unit together one day in the Rose Garden,” Cheney said. “He and I went out to thank them for all they’d done for us over those eight years. He said they really did a fantastic job. Then he turned to me and said, `Frankly, I never expected you to be able to get him through these whole eight years.’ He laughed and everybody else laughed, and I was thankful.”
In those final days in the White House, Cheney began to notice that he was slowing down. It was congestive heart failure, which caught up to him 17 months later.
Cheney blacked out while backing his car out of his driveway. The defibrillator revived him, but he was in bad shape -– enduring “almost fatal nose bleeds,” then another heart attack. By June 2010, he thought he was going to die.
“It was not disturbing,” he said. “It was sort of the normal flow of events. Sooner or later, I was going to run out of therapies, sooner or later I was going to reach the end of my days. And I thought I was there. I was at peace.
“I was fortunate in the sense that there was one more option.”
Cheney received an LVAD and came away “totally helpless,” he said, requiring around-the-clock care. Recovery was long and slow, but he was eventually hunting, fishing and traveling again.
Then came his final medical gift –- the transplant. As Reiner promised, it was a lot easier. He was walking three days later.
That was May 2012, and Cheney is still going strong. He and Reiner released a book called “Heart: An American Medical Odyssey” last year, and he’s resumed his other passions. For instance, he spent this past weekend duck hunting in Louisiana.
“I’ve had a tremendous gift (since the transplant) to spend time with family, with my grandchildren and my wife,” he said. “There have been some important and amazing things during that period of time, using days I never expected to see.”